Feedback sandwiches

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Andrew Rixon looks at feedback and puts his finger on one reason it is so often counter-productive.

Because as neuroscience has shown imagination and creativity are some of the first things to shut down when we face a personal fear response and they may also be our most powerful antidote and ally….And let’s be honest, when it comes to feedback, how often have you felt a twinge of fear? Is there something that you know needs one of those “frank and fearless” conversations?

When giving feedback, we flatter ourselves that we’re being rational and helpful, but we reckon without the lizard brain of the recipients. That part of the brain is not thinking about the finer points of performance, it’s trying to work out whether to run, fight, eat or (we won’t go there) the critic.

Good feedback can be incredibly helpful, even liberating. Bad feedback can create a lot of stress and seems to lead nowhere very interesting. But what exactly is good feedback and how do we make sure we don’t just sit in an echo chamber where all our prejudices are reinforced rather than challenged? Equally, how do we avoid getting hopelessly demoralised by the stuff people sometimes dump in our lap in the name of being helpful? And what about those lizard brains? I’m going to write a few posts about this stuff. This, you may have realised, is the first.

Andrew links to two very interesting perspectives on feedback. The first, by Roger Schwarz (pdf), takes aim at the standard “feedback sandwich” formula. This is the notion that we should sandwich our critical comments between two slabs of praise. The trouble with this technique is that it’s now so widely known that recipients can see it coming a mile off; the slang term in some organisations – where it’s called the “shit sandwich” – reflects this.

Schwarz offers a more elegant rebuttal. He imagine what it would be like to be honest about what you were up to when delivering the sandwich:

To be transparent, you’d have to say,“Jan, I called you in here to give you some negative feedback and I want to let you know my strategy for doing this. First, I’m going to give you some positive feedback to make you feel more comfortable and get you ready for the negative feedback. I think this will make you

less defensive about the negative feedback and less likely to disagree with me.Then, I’ll give you the negative feedback, which is why I called you in here today. Finally, I’ll give you some more positive feedback so you’ll feel better about yourself and won’t be as angry with me.Will that work for you, Jan?” If you’re thinking it would be absurd to share this strategy—you’re right. And

that’s the point. If it’s absurd to share your strategy in a conversation designed to help your colleague, then there’s a fundamental problem with your strategy.

Because the sandwich is an established technique, the strategy is often fairly apparent anyway, hence the problem. I like Schwarz’s test though, and I wonder if it might be usefully applied to a great many management techniques: would you be willing to share with the victims of this approach the strategy implicit in it?

There’s more to this, and in subsquent posts I’m going to look at Schwarz’s interesting alternative about which I have some misgivings. And more on those lizards.

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